I’ve just finished reading Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. It’s one of these books you often find referenced in all sorts of blogs and websites. It also seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ book depending on which side of the liberal/evangelical divide you sit on (a bit like The Shack, I suppose). But it’s been on my wish list for a while and so I spent some birthday vouchers on a copy.
It’s not a ‘big read’. It only took me a couple of days to get through it. It’s written in a light, very conversational tone so it skips along at an easy pace and engages you in the unfolding story. That story is Miller’s faith journey as he questions many of the religious baggage he carries as well as much of his behaviour and attitude towards himself and others. For that reason it’s very much about ‘experience’ and it has been heavily criticised for just that. In a sense it is very self-absorbed with faith growth being about growing as an individual and reconciling many of the big questions about relationships and life through a very personal lens. In essence, it starts with ‘self’ and aims God-ward.
Now this is often taken as a bit of an anathema by many who would suggest that we must always start with God and derive our meaning from that point. No argument there except that that simply isn’t the thought-world we live in these days. And interestingly (for me anyway), this was one of the themes that came out of my Masters research discussion the other day. It’s all very well having a go at someone’s ‘upside-down’ theological starting point, but if the language we use as theologians simply makes no sense to our current cultural context, we might as well be speaking Martian.
Blue Like Jazz is about ‘experiencing’ Christianity. Miller refuses to accept the label ‘Christian’ for himself, preferring instead to speak about Christian spirituality – he is a spiritual person who derives spiritual meaning from a Christian framework. I think his observations are and his experiences are exceedingly challenging and encouraging. It is a powerful testimony. I believe it could have been made even more powerful by more direct reference to scripture or theology, but that wasn’t the purpose of the book. It’s a book you could easily give to a ‘seeker’ (another contemporary term) and not feel you are Bible-bashing, but are still challenging their self-centredness and worldly outlook.
But I can’t help but feel that it still leaves a bit of a gulf between ‘true’ Christianity and some sense of a watered-down, post-modern, feel-good gospel. I wonder if Christian spirituality becomes another ‘commodity’ in the pick-n-mix religion supermarket and that if it’s all about being selfless and relationship friendly, then why not whichever framework works best for you? Why does it have to be a Christian one?
I know the book isn’t intended to be a theological tome that will encourage the pomo-generation to flock into churches, but I wonder if it short-changes those it does draw closer to Jesus. By ducking the “but why?” questions and giving an answer that is not really much better than “just because and anyway, it works for me”, it leaves open the possibility of creating either Christianity-lite or a lot of disappointed people when they discover they don’t have the underpinnings that support the times when the ‘big questions’ really matter (like when, as a friend might say, they are standing in the pits of hell asking, “how did I end up here?”).
As I say, the book isn’t meant to take people to that place (solidity, not hell), but rather expose them to a testimony that might get them engaging in the discussion about what Christianity (or Christian spirituality) is all about. And that’s not a bad starting point. Indeed it’s a place where many ‘hit them over the head with the Bible’ churches simply can’t even get people to in the first place. But the big question for me is how you then engage them in meaningful discussion that is theologically sound, God-centred and unashamedly Christian? And how to draw them beyond even selflessness into a concern and compassion for the world we live in?